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‘Academic Interest’

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Sunaura Taylor and Judith Butler go for a walk.

In a video that is available online, you can watch Judith Butler, philosopher and winner of a bad writing award, speaking to a crowd at Occupy Wall Street. It is a short speech, pointed and incantatory, and Butler is brilliant.

A wonderful innovation of the Occupy Wall Street movement was the use of the human microphone — the name given to the body of the audience repeating, amplifying, each statement made by the speaker. This practice was probab…

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Of Footfalls and Plasters

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Peter Dinklage: Made to talk British in Game of Thrones

A question that has long preoccupied some of the best minds of the generation is why, in American movies and TV shows set in foreign or imagined lands, the characters almost invariably speak in British accents, especially if they’re bad guys. One commentator theorized that, on the fantasy end of things (on up through Game of Thrones, where poor Peter Dinklage is made to talk British), it’s the responsibility of J.R.R. Tolkien, author of the…

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Fit for a New Century

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The Fitbit, a tool for the fitness age (both kinds)

What’s your fitness age?

That’s a 21st-century question you can ask, thanks to the invention of the phrase fitness age. But what does this new term mean?

Here’s an answer provided by the lexicographer David Barnhart, editor of The Barnhart Dictionary Companion, a quarterly devoted to new words.

He defines fitness age as “a measure in years of age of a person’s physical condition and health relative to their chronological age, based on aerobic c…

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What Language Learning Cannot Be

jevonsI noticed that W. Stanley Jevons’s remarkably successful little book Elementary Lessons in Logic (reprinted annually for decades after its appearance in 1870) uses language learning to illustrate two ways of acquiring or transmitting knowledge (see Lesson XXIV, “On Method, Analysis and Synthesis”). One is the method of instruction:

A student, for example, in learning Latin, Greek, French, German, or any well-known language, receives a complete Grammar and Syntax setting forth the whole of the pr…

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The Shortest Generation

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Novak Djokovic: No generation between him and Roger Federer

When Novak Djokovic recently paid tribute to Roger Federer, saying that the Swiss master was admired by players of Djokovic’s generation, many academic types might have had a little weep — and not because none of us will ever be able to grade papers at 130 miles per hour, or whatever the conversion might be from mph to pph.

Djokovic was born in 1987, Federer in 1981. That’s not enough time for a biological cycle in humans (though it wou…

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Revealing American Speech

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Sojourner Truth’s first language was Dutch.

If you want to become an expert on the English language in North America, and maybe teach it too, a good place to start is with the American Dialect Society’s quarterly journal, American Speech. The latest issue is Volume 90, Number 2, dated May 2015.

From its beginnings nearly a century ago (H.L. Mencken was one of the founders), American Speech has been accessible to readers with no special training in linguistics — at least in many of its article…

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Do We Really Hate That?

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Richard Grant White didn’t like the verb “donate.”

It was the question-and-answer session after a talk I gave about “language pet peeves” (presenting a linguist’s view) a few months ago at a city club. One woman in the audience immediately raised her hand and asked, “Why do people insist on using impact as a verb?” She then added, “I hate that.” There were assenting murmurs around the room: “Ridiculous,” “I hear that all the time,” and, echoing the questioner, “Oh, I hate that.”

Hate? A noun lik…

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The Fringe Is Coming to Town

castleI love this time of year in Edinburgh. The weather, of course, remains its usual disgraceful self: high winds with on-and-off rain the past few days. The gap between the David Hume Tower and the business school still funnels the wind into gusts that can lift small-framed people off their feet. In May this year we had hailstorms. But you don’t come to Edinburgh for equable weather. When I moved here from California, I vowed never to waste my time grumbling about the cold and the dark.

No, what I …

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What Did You Say?

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Claudia Rankine’s poetry ushers the reader in to an intimacy that comes from acquiring consciousness. (Photograph from Pomona College)

If you are among the 128K followers on Twitter of @AcademicsSay, you have read tweets like the following:

“I have a statement followed by a two-part question.”

“Posit.”

“I often get emotional. But when I do, I call it affect.”

“Let’s unpack this a bit.”

etc.

I recognize myself — and us — in these tweets. Such self-mocking tweets can be amusing and also, if th…

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But, Seriously

Anyone who reads college papers — and who pays attention to the punctuation therein — will recognize a fairly recent trend of students following a sentence-opening conjunction with a comma. As in: “But, that’s incorrect!”

I will immediately and quickly address the “gross canard” (Garner’s Modern American English) that starting a sentence with But, And, or any other conjunction is problematic. Every stylebook I’ve ever seen agrees it is perfectly kosher; the only mystery is how so many middle-sch…